Cisco workers in Germany teach tech to refugees FEATURE
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Cisco workers in Germany volunteer with ReDI School, giving hundreds of refugees the opportunity to learn technology skills, which are in high demand in Germany.

Wasim Aboalola arrived in Germany nearly two years ago after he was forced to flee his home in Syria. He not only left behind his wife and young son, he also had to give up his job at a Syrian bank, where he worked in the IT department. "It was very dangerous for me to leave Syria because all the neighboring countries wouldn't accept me," Aboalola said. "It took me about a month to make it to Germany."

Like many Syrian refugees living in Germany, Aboalola has a college degree, but he couldn't find a job. "I'm the guy that's always searching for a job or an opportunity," Aboalola said. Through a friend, he heard about ReDI School, an education non-profit that teaches students IT-skills, gives them job training, and pairs them with mentors who work in the tech industry. "For us, we're very much about creating what we call a win, win, win situation," said Anne Reichert the co-founder of ReDI School.  "It needs to be good for the German company, it needs to be good for German society and it needs to be good for the refugees."

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Cisco is one of several tech companies partnering with ReDI School. The company has donated money to the non-profit, but Cisco workers in the Berlin office also give their time. Claus Schaale, a Data Center Business Development Manager, is one of the dozen Cisco employees volunteering as teachers and mentors to the students. "They're just people like you or me that happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. That's it. It's no more or no less than that," said Schaale. "The students I have could have been me in Chile in the the 80's.  It could have been me. "

One of the students Schaale mentors is Joud Sayed Issa. She has an undergraduate degree in engineering from Aleppo University and a master's in applied economics from Virginia Tech. "In Syria, it's very common to have women in engineering," Sayed Issa said. She graduated in 2013, two years after the war started. "It wasn't easy. It was hard. In the beginning, we stopped going to school. We were afraid, but then we had to continue living."

Sayed Issa then got the opportunity to go the United States for graduate school, and after graduating made her way to Germany about a year ago, where her husband was living.

She took an IoT class at ReDI School, where she learned about a Cisco internship opportunity and applied. "They were looking for people who had a background in programming, so Claus suggested I apply, "Sayed Issa said. "About fifty people applied for two positions and I was offered one of them."

Sayed Issa recently got the chance to share her story with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  "There are a lot of educated newcomers who have the ability to work and I'm just one example and it was good to show that to Chancellor Merkel," Sayed Issa said. "I never thought I'd get the chance to meet Chancellor Merkel and it was a very good experience."

With an estimated 51,000 IT jobs that need to be filled in Germany, Sayed Issa is exactly the kind of newcomer who can help the country realize its digitization goals. ReDI School acts as a bridge between the companies and refugees. "The thing that really makes me happy is to see that the company feels that they are gaining more than they're giving," Reichert said. "If the company sees the investment that they're providing is actually less than the value that they're getting back this is something that is really scalable."

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Cisco is one of several tech companies partnering with ReDI School.  Microsoft employees work hand in hand with Cisco employees, teaching the students in workshops. "With this relationship, with Cisco and Microsoft, we see many more opportunities," said Matthias Bucchorn, a Microsoft employee. "We started with an IoT workshop. Right now it's 80% Syrian refugees, but we can now extend it."

"The Cisco interns we recruited through ReDI School are an asset to our teams. They are getting hands-on experience to prepare them for their future careers, and we are also benefitting from their talent."Ruba Borno, Vice President of Growth and Chief of Staff to CEO Chuck Robbins, is a champion of the partnership between ReDI School and Cisco. Borno believes organizations like ReDI School align with one of Cisco's missions – to change the world for the better.  They not only help create opportunities for displaced persons, but also provide a golden opportunity for high-tech companies to fill the global shortage in digital skills. "We live in a digital era – where information can become obsolete in seconds, not months. We need skilled engineers who are eager to learn and can adapt to the pace of change our customers need," Borno said. "The Cisco interns we recruited through ReDI School are an asset to our teams. They are getting hands-on experience to prepare them for their future careers, and we are also benefitting from their talent."

Aboalola remains focused on just that. After a year, he landed a coveted internship at Cisco. He's now two months into his internship at Cisco, and he was able to reunite with his wife and son.  At 34, he says he feels his age, but that isn't stopping him from realizing his dream. "I want to be a master at IT," Aboalola said. "What I really like about Cisco is the practical hands on learning, but they're also helping me get Cisco certifications. Being certified is really my dream, and that's really what I'm aiming toward."

For now, ReDI School only operates in Berlin, but Reichert hopes to open up an additional school in Hamburg, and possibly internationally. "I was just in Jordan," Riechert said. "We're looking into how we can eventually start ReDI schools in refugee camps. It would be fantastic if we can actually figure out how we can help refugees who are in the areas where the conflict is happening and providing them with the right kind of skills."

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About Liza Meak @lizameak

Liza Meak is a Manager of Social Media Communications at Cisco. She writes and produces content for The Network, Cisco's technology news site.